Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Good Soldier Švejk

 The Good Soldier Švejk, by Jaroslav Hašek

The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War--that's the full title of this influential (and gigantic) work.  Švejk has become an icon of the little guy in Central and Eastern Europe.  And I found out that his name is pronounced Shvake.  I had to ask for help several times with the pronunciations; I was especially befuddled by the letter ů--never seen that one before!

Švejk is a dealer in stolen dogs, and when war breaks out, he is completely enthusiastic and patriotic.  (This is entirely suspicious; in World War I the Czechs lived under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and they were conscripted into fighting for a power they didn't like, in a war they didn't care about or understand.)  He is arrested by the secret police, put into a madhouse, and eventually ends up in the army, where he consistently gets lost, in trouble, or even arrested as a spy.  Somehow or other, though, he never does make it to the front...

Švejk is either a crafty and insolent slacker, or a complete idiot; you never do quite find out what he is really up to.  He drives his superiors mad with his mistakes, his endless pointless stories, and his open and honest demeanor.  The whole thing is a long satire on the pointlessness and idiocy of war, in particular as practiced by the bureaucratic machine of the Austrian Empire.

The story is unfinished; Hašek meant to write six books, but died when he was only half-way through.  It's presumed that Švejk would have continued on to have adventures that roughly followed the author's own experiences during the war, and apparently those were quite something.  I'd like to read his story.  He was all over the place during the war.

At first it struck me as bizarrely Kafka-esque---if Kafka had written long comedies.  It's the same sort of thing, where you're never going to get anywhere with this inhuman bureaucracy, only here Švejk rebels in his own disorganized way.  It's also a fore-runner to, and inspiration for, Heller's Catch-22.  

There are cartoon illustrations scattered all through the book.  They were done after Hašek's death, so there's a bit of argument over whether they really represent his vision, but they've become completely identified with it.

The humor is mostly earthy, as you might expect in a novel that mainly features soldiers.  There are plenty of stereotypes of every kind, many of which don't really translate into English, so I didn't understand them, but the Jews are pretty noticeable.  Priests come under fire even more.  Nobody escapes from Hašek's sarcasm.

So Švejk has been popular and influential.  There has been a movie (I'd like to see it--the actor looks just right), a claymation series, a park bench statue, and several beers.  You can get little dolls!  (I want this one, available on eBay.)   A Norwegian fellow named Honsi has followed Švejk's entire journey and produced this amazing website, complete with map.  It's a whole genre, or something!

1 comment:

Alex in Leeds said...

Oh I love Svejk and his mad schemes and adventures. I recently tracked down a copy of the edition I originally read (bright yellow with one of the very identifiable drawings of Svejk on the the cover) and it's due a re-read this year. :)